Interview; UK defends Myanmar policy, despite continued human rights abuses

31st Mar 2013

Minister Hugo Swire speaking to Muslim residents in the town of Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State in December 2012

Ahmed J Versi

Foreign Office Minister, Hugo Swire, insists that Britain’s policy towards Myanmar (Burma) is consistent with other countries in wanting President Thein Sein and his Government on the road to democracy, openness and transparency, despite its abuse of minority groups, including Rohingya Muslims.

Around 800,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar, many for hundreds of years, and according to the UN, they are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes and many are living in camps in Rakhine state, while Thein Sein has been seeking to deny them citizenship.

The UK is the largest aid donor to its former colony but human rights organisations have accused the Myanmar Government of systematically restricting humanitarian aid and imposing discriminatory policies.

Earlier this month 10 people were reported killed and mosques and shops burned by Buddhists in Meiktila town, south of Mandalay, which has a large Muslim population.

In an exclusive interview with The Muslim News, on March 6, Swire admitted that “not everything in the garden is rosy” after leading a trade mission to Myanmar last December when he was accused of putting trade before human rights. “We’re dealing with a country which has been held back, a country which we believe is on the right transitional path. We think they can go quicker, we think there is a huge job to be done by the international community.”

“We’re all working in a very coordinated way and pressing the Burmese Government, particularly in the case of the Rohingya people, on various issues. The point we’ve been making the whole way through is that the first thing we needed to make sure is that they were secure, particularly in their camps; I think that has now been achieved,” he said.

“The second thing is we needed to ensure is that the humanitarian aid was getting through to them and I think that’s happening,” the Minister insisted. “The third thing is that those who have perpetrated any kind of violence, allegations of torture, rape, abduction and all that should be brought to account. And fourthly, is the issue of citizenship. We believe that the Rohingya people should be given full rights like any other group within Burma.”

During his visit, Swire flew to Rakhine and saw some of the displaced Rohingya in Sittwe where he found the Muslim community has been “encircled for their own safety.” He expressed concern about the canvas tents with the rainy season approaching and also talk of making permanent buildings in the camps and not where the people have fled from their integrated communities.

During its colonial days, Britain had encouraged Bengali inhabitants from adjacent regions to migrate into the then lightly populated and fertile valleys. As a former Northern Ireland Minister, he said that they had to be very careful about what happened with communities separating forever. “We want to make certain that the immediate humanitarian requirements doesn’t by the law of unintended consequences cause more problems further down the line by entrenching this separation.”

Swire expressed support for about the Myanmar Government’s report into what happened particularly in Rakhine, claiming it was “evidence of reconciliation.” He went as far as suggesting that the violence perpetrated was by both sides and even may be exaggerated. “There is a lot of rumours in the area and a lot of anecdotal rumour and don’t forget this is a very spread out area, some of these places are very isolated. You fly over a helicopter and it takes ages to get from one place to the other. So the word of mouth travels and then things get lost in translation and exaggerated and so forth.”

With EU due to review the suspension of sanctions on the condition of an improvement in human rights, he said that the British Government’s view was that “things are not perfect but they are moving in the right direction.” It was a “fine judgement” of “whether you want to encourage the process or whether you want to, as it were, to halt the process because things are not going the way you want at the speed you want.”

“My own view is I have some reservations but ultimately I think we need to keep this momentum going. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was saying we need to go faster and quicker, that’s really her view – a view that we listen to with considerable respect, obviously we will.”

“Obviously sanctions need to be maintained on arms and any weaponry or anything that can be used against their own people. But in terms of trying to open up Burma and try to encourage it on its way and to show the generals and the military that really this is about an unstoppable momentum, there’s no going back and the world is wanting to invest and improve the lives of everyone in that country and they need to do these things”.

Asked about the human rights situation, Swire said that he believed “things have improved. I think there is considerable room for improvement so it comes down to the judgment of do you use the stick or the carrot.” He claimed “the majority of people now think we’ve got to keep going the broad way we’re going (but) that does not in any way say we should ignore the very serious human right abuses.”

The way forward is “probably to give them at this stage more carrot than stick.”

The change in policy towards Myanmar follows the release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from jail in 2010, but she herself refused to discuss that issue of giving citizenship to the Rohingya Muslims during a visit to London. Swire said that she had said herself that she was only “one person I can’t do it all.” On the issue of citizenship, he said that there has been international pressure and thought “there has been a genuine change of view amongst the Burmese Government about what it is they are going to have to do in order to address this question.”


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